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Opinion: Indo-Pacific as next bridge for China-India rapprochement

Swaran Singh

Editor's note: Swaran Singh is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and visiting professor at Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies, Kunming. The article reflects the author's opinion, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Tomorrow, the Kunming-based Research Institute for Indian Ocean Economies (RIIO) of the Yunnan University of Economics and Finance -- along with the prestigious Fudan University of Shanghai -- launches China's first Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies (CIPS).  Debates around China's engagement with the Indo-Pacific had been an enigma for quite some time but increasingly shows strong potential of emerging as the next critical bridge for cementing the post-Wuhan spirit guiding China-India relations.

This prospect remains especially promising as CIPS will be hosted in RIIO which has also been China's first such institution focusing on Indian Ocean economies and its annual Blue Book has since earned a certain visibility amongst the academic circles of various littoral nations of the Indian Ocean. Indeed, the last two decades have seen Kunming emerge as a critical hub for China's engagement with South and Southeast Asia and this week it will be hosting a 200-strong delegation of India's young leaders who are on a visit to five Chinese cities.

A stand at the 5th China-South Asia Expo & 25th China Kunming Import and Export Fair in Kunming, China, June 14, 2018. /VCG Photo

As regards to the significance of Indo-Pacific studies the launch of the CIPS also coincides with New Delhi's announcement earlier this week of hosting their much delayed Second China-India Maritime Dialogue. This could not be held last year given Donglang (Doklam) tensions of 2017. What makes this dialogue important is that India has proposed that this forum will also deliberate on the Indo-Pacific paradigm in order to evolve certain coherence within the Indo-Pacific community's perceptions.

For India, China remains an integral part of the Indo-Pacific geopolitics though onus lies on Beijing to explain its standpoint on this topical new formulation. New Delhi, of course, understands how Beijing's views remain at wide variance with western proponents of the Indo-Pacific paradigm. With increasingly intensity of US-China trade wars, India does not wish to fall prey to having to choose sides, which explains New Delhi's efforts at exploring a blending of these varying visions.

This is why Indian Prime Minister's June 1 speech at Singapore's Shangri-La Dialogue had clarified that their recently revived Quadrilateral of US-Japan-India-Australia will not be the sole custodian of the Indo-Pacific formulation.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers his keynote address at the opening of the 17th Asian Security Summit of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 1, 2018. 

Many experts saw this as India assuaging China's concerns about India bandwagoning the Indo-Pacific locomotive aimed at countering Beijing. But Prime Minister Modi's Shangri-La speech had made it amply clear how New Delhi aims at building a "free, open and inclusive" Indo-Pacific and will be focused on "partnerships...in format of three or more" which was aptly appreciated in China.

This now explains India's move to formally propose official parleys on the Indo-Pacific debates with Beijing, followed by Moscow. This gradual drift of India towards Russia and China is driven by India's need to underline its perennial preoccupation with strategic autonomy of India's foreign policy with positive implication for China-India relations.

However, India is not the only country to showcase such adrift to engaging the US-led Indo-Pacific discourse. The United States today stands increasingly at variance with all of its friends like Britain, Australia, Japan, ASEAN and India is no exception.

While US proponents continue to raise the bogey of the South China Sea, being the hub of Indo-Pacific that makes US frequently dispatch naval vessels for patrolling these waters, Britain has since stopped joining such patrolling and Australia's successive Defence White papers since 2009 have moved from calling China a strategic challenge to exploring developmental partnership.

Philippine navy's Davao del Sur (L) and frigate Alcaraz participate in the amphibious landing as part of the annual Philippines and US joint military exercises in San Antonio, Manila on May 9, 2018. /VCG Photo

Most allies of the US now talk of sea lanes in terms of global commerce and India talks even more broadly of promoting "rule-based navigational connectivity" which are sometimes read with implication for China's claims on the South China Sea.

But China's growing interest in engaging Indo-Pacific debates and now launching a dedicated Centre for Indo-Pacific Studies surely augurs well for all other stakeholders who remain curious to know China's mind on these matters. Amongst these, India's can be the most useful interlocutor for China.

Indeed, if China were to choose amongst US friends and allies in engaging the Indo-Pacific discourse it may find India as a most agreeable choice among available options. India's offer to open official deliberation with China on Indo-Pacific clearly alludes to such being the premise among India's policy makers. 

India has never directly criticized Beijing's maritime policies in the South China Sea. If anything, the two navies have occasionally held joint naval exercises since 2007 as also joint operations in addressing piracy in Gulf of Aden which underlines the potential for making Indo-Pacific discourse as one more bridge in their post-Wuhan equations.


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